Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences — Opinion

OKLAHOMA CITY – With better than a quarter century of my life spent in advocacy, including 12 years as a state Representative, I’ve seen many good and more than several “less desirable” ideas work their way through the system and become public policy.

Included in the latter group are those which on the surface might sound like a good idea but end up having consequences that require amending soon after.

One such case that I hope legislators will take up for reconsideration and clarification is House Bill 1775, which became law in 2021. Dubbed the “Critical Race Theory Bill,” even though the language in the bill had very little to do with that actual topic, HB 1775 as written has created a state of confused fear across our public school system.

Critical race theory, as defined by Britannica, is “an intellectual movement and a framework of legal analysis according to which (1) race is a culturally invented category used to oppress people of color and (2) the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities between white and nonwhite people.”

This is often taught in post-graduate classes as a review of what policies happen which might negatively impact people from different minority populations.

The language ultimately passed by the Oklahoma Legislature was much broader. In turn, it has led to teachers fearing consequences of what might happen if they engage in any classroom discussion where race may be a part of the actual historical record. I’ve no doubt there were legislators who voted for H.B. 1775 who had and still have good intentions.

In reality, though, worries from school districts have been justified, especially in light of recent actions by the State Board of Education against two public school districts — Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools. The State Board decided to downgrade accreditation by a 4-2 vote for these two school districts over violating the law on race and gender teaching. The reduction means the districts are now two tiers away from losing accreditation altogether.

This surely isn’t what the Legislature intended.

The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) was opposed to the vague language in House Bill 1775 during its consideration by the Legislature. When it passed, it was added as a negative vote on our annual scorecard.

This past week, the leadership from the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes, comprised of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Muscogee, and Seminole Nations, requested the Oklahoma Legislature repeal the language.

They said, “The vague wording of the law has contributed to fear among school districts and teachers about teaching accurate historical information, including accurate history of the experiences of Native American peoples in Oklahoma.”

OICA encourages lawmakers to look at this policy and bring forth either a repeal or significant revision to help schools better understand what can be discussed. We fully and absolutely agree that there should never be “race shaming” allowed in our schools, but we also cannot afford to reflect upon or discuss what oppression was allowed in our history.

Such discussion and reflection is not an expression of shame but rather one of the many valuable products of history – seeing and treasuring the progress we have made as a state, a nation, and a people.

Note: Joe Dorman is the chief executive officer at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. He served several terms in the State Legislature. In 2014, he was the Democratic candidate for governor. His commentaries and opinion essays appear frequently on the website.